Online services catering for health and wellness received a huge boost over the Covid years, with a 2020 survey by Accenture finding 62% of healthcare consumers happy to choose virtual advice for health and wellness issues and 57% open to remote monitoring of ongoing health concerns.
In the case of mental health, where virtual offerings are not just advisory but therapeutic, ease of access is not the only consideration, of course.
‘By 2021, 95% of virtual service provision of CBT in the NHS was through a SilverCloud product’
The story of one Irish tech company that has become a byword internationally for quality mental health services is welcome confirmation that scientific rigour and a patient-centric approach can underpin commercial achievement in this most sensitive of areas. For former CFO and COO Kevin Higgins FCCA, SilverCloud’s path to scaling and acquisition was also a professional success story that brought some deeply personal rewards.
SilverCloud Health was set up as a commercial entity in 2012, a spinout from the Technology Enhanced Therapy project – a collaborative effort involving the National Digital Research Centre, Mater University Hospital and Trinity College Dublin. Unlike many in the start-up space, however, Higgins notes that there was no rush to commercialisation here. ‘CEO and co-founder Ken Cahill founded a team that had, at this point, more than 10 years of advanced clinical and academic research to support the operational model,’ he says.
CFO and COO, SilverCloud Health, concluding role in 2022
Joins Paddy Power plc, holding several roles of head of finance for various business lines
Financial controller, PDV
At the core of that model was the digitisation of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), an approach to wellbeing that stresses the role of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes in feelings and actions. CBT has proved successful in addressing depression and anxiety in a wide variety of contexts, from grief and loss to chronic illness, eating disorders and the challenges of parenting.
‘I found myself thinking differently about life; SilverCloud’s mission aligned with my values’
The company hit its first major milestone soon after being established. ‘The NHS was looking to improve access to mental health services and to deliver care in non-traditional ways,’ Higgins says. ‘SilverCloud fitted that sweet spot and meant that people who might not need face-to-face counselling could have access to a powerful alternative.’ So successful was the relationship that ‘by 2021, 95% of virtual service provision of CBT in the NHS was through a SilverCloud product,’ he says.
Impressive though it was, that relationship wasn’t in itself enough to win investor funding and expand in what the company saw as its most critical market: the US. Higgins entered the picture, he says, as recognition grew internally of ‘the need to bring someone onboard who had growth experience, a CFO who understood the business through relationships as well as dashboards and reporting.
‘To secure funding, the company needed more maturity and growth discipline. A data-driven decision process was also key to us going deeper into the American marketplace.’
Joining SilverCloud in 2017, Higgins undertook his own due diligence, recognising its potential impact on vulnerable people. ‘Fortunately my wife Felicity is a clinical psychologist and she helped me validate the science behind the product,’ he says. There were also some personal motivations for getting involved, he recalls. ‘Our son had arrived before taking up the new role in 2015 and my father had recently passed away from Huntington’s Disease the following year. I found myself thinking differently about life. When SilverCloud came along its mission aligned with my values and satisfied the start-up itch I wanted to scratch.’
‘Once you’ve got a start-up company in growth mode, making yourself redundant is part of that cycle’
While SilverCloud was certainly innovative, Higgins argues it ‘wasn’t a disrupter in the traditional sense. It was always looking to work within the existing health care model. Disruption doesn’t really work in an environment where there is an inherent conservatism to decision-making.’
Over the following two years, Higgins would play a key role in two rounds of financing, moving to the US with his family at one stage to work more closely with the CEO, build out a team for that market, and help to ‘remove the blockers on the growth pipeline’.
The culmination of ‘one of the most intense business experiences of my life’ was acquisition by Boston-based telemedicine company Amwell in 2021. Higgins, who had by then settled back with his family in Malahide in north county Dublin, would play a further lead role on integration.
‘If you think your current role is not moving fast enough then you’ll probably succeed in start-up land’
However, ‘it quickly became apparent that integration also meant synergy and my existing CFO role would be handled by the parent company. Once you’ve got a start-up company in growth and acquisition mode, making yourself redundant is very often a part of completing that cycle.’
SilverCloud is spun out from the NDRC and Technology Enhanced Therapy project
Amount raised in Series A funding, rising to US$20m in Series B funding in 2020
Company is acquired by Amwell
Number of users supported by SilverCloud
Satisfaction rate among users
For those who might feel the start-up itch, Higgins acknowledges that ‘by scratching it, you open yourself to multiple roles and a much greater time commitment. You are the guardian of the company’s finances – a finance person who is not just working in a finance role. If you are someone who thinks your current role is not moving fast enough then you are probably the type who’ll succeed in start-up land.’
Involving himself in consultancy work in 2023 after finishing the role, Higgins reflects that ‘less than 1% of Irish start-ups reach the conclusion that SilverCloud realised, so it’s something I remain very proud of.’
In 2024, Higgins started a new role with Spectrum.Life, an impactful mental health and wellbeing innovator ‘with a mission to save and change as many lives as possible’.
The future he says, won’t necessarily be about replicating that ‘rollercoaster experience, but the opportunity to join a growing company, scale it in the right way and make it attractive to possible future strategic partners in the right way.’